Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Middle or working class?

Rick Santorum, the one time (and perhaps again a future) Republican presidential candidate shared this piece of advice with his party: “Don’t use the term the other side uses.” That includes the “middle class.” Santorum accused President Obama for constantly invoking the term “middle class” in his speeches about the economy. “Since when in America do we have classes?” Santorum asked. “Since when in America are people stuck in areas or defined places called a class? That’s Marxism talk.”

He is wrong about the supposed non-existence of class in America but he is right (for the wrong reasons) that we should not use the term “middle class”. Obama’s repeated reference to the “middle class” is indeed in error. Marx did employ the term “middle class” in his works . In the Victorian period this term was used to refer to the bourgeoisie or capitalist class. In modern Marxist terminology the words “middle class” would be replaced by “bourgeois” and ”capitalist” as appropriate. Having to work for an employer was how Marx defined the working class. In the 19th century when Marx wrote, the term was used by the up-and-coming industrial section of the capitalist class in Britain to describe themselves; they were the class between the landed aristocracy (who at that time dominated political power) and the working class. Eventually, however, the middle class of industrial capitalists replaced the landed aristocracy as the ruling class and the two classes merged into the capitalist class we know today. In other words, the middle class became part of the upper class and disappeared as a “middle class". The term, however, lives on and has grown to become a very vague term.

Most Americans like to think of themselves as middle class whether it’s accurate or not. The American working class has repeatedly been sold the myth of the “middle class”. In 2005 New York Times survey found only 1 percent of respondents considered themselves “upper class,” and only 7 percent considered themselves part of the “lower class.” There exists a tendency  for people to see the basic unfairness of the capitalist system and at the same time accept it and to believe that they can do well against the odds. This is a genuine and difficult reality for us Marxists, particularly when politicians like Santorum feed into this way of thinking.

All men and women who because of their lack of property are forced to seek work for a wage or a salary are members of the working class. Whether you work in a factory or an office whether you push a barrow or a pen if you have to seek a wage or a salary in order to live you are a member of the working class. “Better off” workers still have to  worry about making ends meet, face the indignity of redundancy or pay-cuts and in one degree or another, suffer the problems created by capitalist society. "Middle class" is not an appropriate term for people who are only a few pay-checks or a medical bill away from financial disaster or people who have jobs but with debts wildly disproportionate to their income and no assets to speak of. It should be admitted that they really are working class. This is what places them firmly in the ranks of the workers whether or not they like it or not or even  know it. It is not a question of social origins. An individual born in the working class may well enter the capitalist class (and vice versa). Nevertheless a class tends to perpetuate itself along the lines of its social origins. What this means is that essentially we are living in a two-class society of capitalists and workers. To “escape from your class” do not believe or trust in becoming a capitalist. Work instead for a society in which class divisions no longer exist. No matter how seductive the American Dream may be, we are still wage slaves and that fact is growing more and more apparent to more and more people. 

1 comment:

ajohnstone said...

In case Santorum needs some convincing from the Founding Fathers about the existence of class he should know that Alexander Hamilton said:
"All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are rich and the well-born; the other are the mass of the people."

While James Madison explains:
"Those who hold, and those without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide civilized nations of necessity into different classes actuated by different sentiments and views."